All Talk and No Oil Cap Makes Barack A Dull Boy

A roundup of press coverage of and reaction to Obama's Oval Office address on the Gulf oil spill

Eight weeks into the biggest oil spill disaster in American history and beset by criticism of the federal reaction to the fiasco, President Barack Obama used his very first Oval Office address last night to discuss a plan for the spill beyond an immediate fix — and the reaction was instant.

The New York Times’s news analysis column by Peter Baker, printed side by side on the front page with the paper’s straight news story on the president’s long-awaited public address on the Gulf Coast oil spill, started out with an impatient, arms folded, toe-tapping tone, and a critical view of Obama’s martial language that cast the spill cleanup as “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.” The lede:

Fifty-six days, millions of gallons of oil and countless hours of cable television second-guessing later, President Obama finally addressed the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday night to declare war.

Baker’s analysis, like much coverage of the speech, also focused on Obama’s Rumpelstiltskin opportunity to spin hay into gold with his speech on the BP oil spill or, as the Times put it, to convert “political burden into a political weapon” by channeling public outrage into public support for clean energy policy. But as Baker pointed out:

The connection to the spill, of course, goes only so far. While he called for more wind turbines and solar panels, for instance, neither fills gasoline tanks in cars and trucks, and so their expansion would not particularly reduce the need for the sort of deepwater drilling that resulted in the spill.

Linda Feldmann for the The Christian Science Monitor also questioned how Obama’s push for clean energy would prevent future oil spills, calling the speech “long on big picture and short on detail.”

Feldmann opened with an epigraph, quoting Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, in the days shortly after Obama’s election, saying, “Rule No. 1: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.”

Obama interpreted that rule, Feldmann wrote, to make the argument for a “national mission” to “create a clean energy future.” But it’s not clear what that means.

With nearly one-third of Obama’s 17-minute speech devoted to long-term energy reform, critics complained that the president gave the immediate crisis short shrift and provided no new details.


Obama did not reveal whether he would push for the kind of “cap and trade” provision the House has already passed, which would limit carbon emissions – and which opponents call a tax. He mentioned the word “climate” only once in the speech, when referring to the House bill.

Weighing the political landscape, Feldmann wrote that with Republicans sensing an opportunity for “major gains in the fall midterm election and with Democrats fearful of taking risky votes,” now would not appear to be the right moment to push for clean energy reform, a centerpiece of Obama’s campaign that ended up taking a backseat to healthcare reform.

But enough with the wishy-washy, superficial analysis of Obama’s political strategy, word choice and television presence. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones (which did some of the earliest and best work in exposing BP’s restrictions on journalistic access to the spill) did not mince words, writing simply, “What a terrible speech.” He continued:

The whole point of a prime time Oval Office speech is that it announces something big. On that score, Obama failed right from the start. He told us that lots of people are already working the cleanup. Yawn.

…This speech felt entirely by-the-numbers to me. He told us about the spill. He told us the best minds in the country were working on it. He told us BP would pay for it. He told us he was setting up some commissions. He said he wanted an energy bill of some kind. Then he told us all to pray. It felt like he was reading off a PowerPoint deck.

So what should Obama have said?

Of course, many different people wanted Obama to say many different things, depending on their vested interests. At the Houma Courier in Lousiana, the hometown paper for many along the state’s Gulf Coast who depend on the oil and gas industry for their livelihood, the reaction to the speech focused on the one thing that affects stakeholders the most: jobs. The Courier’s main story on the speech focused solely on Obama’s reiteration of the temporary ban on deepwater offshore drilling, which he enacted after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, affecting 33 rigs working in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Courier. The lede:

Despite a fierce outcry from state and local officials, President Obama showed no signs Tuesday night of backing down from the six-month ban on exploratory oil-and-gas drilling imposed amid the worst spill in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, the fishermen, who make up coastal Louisiana’s other major industry just wanted to hear the one thing they care about - when the oil will stop gushing - but Obama conveniently avoided mentioning any kind of timeline. As Jeffrey Jones reported for Reuters, on location from a bar in coastal Lousiana, most fishermen, ever the practical types, don’t really care for speech-ifying. Words won’t stop the oil, they said.

Fisherman James Swain watched the major televised speech on the response to the BP Plc (BP.L) (BP.N) oil spill up at the bar with his friend Ray Cepriano. They ordered up beers and shrimp.

“We’re in a bind down here,” Swain said. “Obama can’t stop the well, and that’s what they need to do.”

Robert Cavnar, writing for the Huffington Post through his Daily Hurricane blog on global and national energy policy, was desperate to hear a promise to enact tough, centralized government oversight on the cleanup.

The speech, while up to Obama’s oratorial standard, fell short of what I think we all needed to hear. What he should have communicated was that the US government was taking over protecting our own shores, shoving BP out of the way and militarizing the response. While he did finally call on the Gulf state governors to activate its National Guard units for the response, he fell short of centralizing clean-up authority under the Coast Guard or any military command.

Meanwhile, even as liberal supporters found the speech lacking for its failure to go far enough in sparking a broader discussion about climate change, Republicans attacked Obama’s speech for doing the very same thing, and using the environmental disaster as a tool to further progressives’ energy policy agenda. It wasn’t all a partisan pile-on, though, pointed out Michael Sheridan at the New York Daily News; even some Democrats “weren’t impressed,’ including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said:

The climate bill isn’t going to stop the oil leak. Stop the oil leak, that’s what this is all about right now.

But don’t stop drilling!, said Sarah Palin, who appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show with a response to Obama’s speech (video here), and brought Obama’s energy policy back to a discussion of national security.

“Certainly we need that (wind and solar energy), but he is wrong not to acknowledge that we still need on a three-legged stool the conventional sources of energy to be drilled here. Otherwise, Bill, we are going to be dropped to our knees and bowing to the Saudis and Venezuela and places like Russia, that will keep producing oil and petroleum products. We will have to ask them to produce for us because we will still be dependent upon these sources of energy.

But short of partisan politics and personal wish-lists on how the president should handle the nation’s energy policy and the oil spill cleanup (I wish Obama had addressed accounts of local officials’ and Coast Guard complicity in aiding BP’s efforts to restrict media access to public beaches, water, and airspace, and then vowed to install a sort of ombudsman to ensure full disclosure and access to the effects of the spill) and other than his demand for a BP-funded escrow account for victims of the spill (which BP agreed this morning to pay $20 billion into), Obama’s speech was thin on the sort of substance that would have answered the age old question, ‘Now what?’

Thankfully, Brian Wingfield at did some close reading between the lines to highlight what Obama didn’t say and what he should have addressed, dissecting the president’s vague vows for a solution, reform, blame, and justice, and then pressing for more detail:

What he said: “The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years. … As the clean up continues, we will offer whatever additional resources and assistance our coastal states may need.” —How long will this take? What types of resources will the Gulf states need? How much is it going to cost? Will BP pay for everything?

Then again, of course the president stuck to the obvious and said what people expected him to say, Wingfield wrote. After all, Oval Office speeches are a bit of theater and they have their limits - they’re highly symbolic, they’re meant to present a galvanized response, they trade in generalities, and rely on stirring public emotion rather than on answering substantive questions.

To be sure, Tuesday night’s address wasn’t the format for Obama to answer these questions. He deliberately chose the Oval Office to make his remarks. The venue conveys the gravity of the situation—presidents typically use the office for solemn addresses. But it also has the added bonus of keeping out reporters, who will pepper the president with questions.

In conclusion: Speeches are nice, but they don’t tell us much. Throw Obama to the press pack of wolves! Or hold a town hall in a Gulf Coast town to address residents’ concerns. Then maybe we’ll finally get some real questions answered.

Watch Obama’s full speech below. Transcript here.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.